Author Archives: atkinsondavid

About atkinsondavid

Freelance journalist, travel writer, blogger, lecturer and Guinness drinker.

Cae Mabon: the verdict

* Two final posts before this blog moves to a new platform. This was written late summer as a pitch for a major family travel contract. I didn’t get it. Maybe you can tell me why below.

David Atkinson wanted some family-bonding time with an eco theme. But would his daughters swop pink for green?

So we’re back from another family holiday in Wales. Snowdonia this time – since you ask. A little eco-retreat village near Llanberis called Cae Mabon.

Run by the storyteller and children’s author Eric Maddern, it comprises a group of cabins in the forest, built around a central roundhouse, and boasts a back-to-nature feel.

Every August it offers an open week for families.

Watch a video of Cae Mabon here.

But why here? Simple. This year it was just me, Maya (aged six) and Olivia (aged two), so I wanted no airport queues, other kids to play with and, overall, a get-away-from-it-all feel.

I definitely didn’t want Disney.

I guess I was also following the call of my own hireath by heading for North Wales. I wanted to introduce the girls to the nature, culture and landscape that formed part of my own childhood.

After all, they’ve served me well.

Exploring the options

Wales has lots of options for a go-green break without overdosing on the mung bean curry. Before making my decision, I checked out the following:

  • Bluestone, South Wales. Wales’ answer to Center Parcs has all the family bases covered and a greener take on short breaks
  • The Centre for Alternative Technology, mid Wales.  Courses, activities and simple accommodation, all with a truly green ethos
  • Anglesey Farm Stays, North Wales. A group of farmstead guesthouses around the island for a back-to-nature break

But, in the end, I chose Cae Mabon for the ease of access (a 90-minute drive from home), the back-to-nature feel and the promise of family-friendly activities to keep the girls busy.

The verdict

Overall, the girls really enjoyed the break and I appreciated the back-to-basics approach to a holiday that Wales does so well.

I thought the best things about Cae Mabon are:

  • Lots of playmates. Maya loved playing with the other children, while I swopped parenting tales with the other dads
  • No cooking. It’s fully catered and all healthy vegetarian food. There’s also juice, fruit and hot drinks available all day.
  • Joining in. Both Maya and Olivia loved the songs and storytelling session around the fire. The session on building a fairy den was also a hit.

But I thought the following would improve the experience for families:

  • Eat early. Timings are a bit late for kids, especially young children – 7.30pm is too late for Olivia’s dinner. Serve up early and the kids will be happier.
  • Think terrible twos. The majority of activities are geared to slightly older children – it’s perfect for ages 7-11. But little ones can feel a bit left out. Cae Mabon needs to widen its age appeal.
  • Spell it out. Nobody was there to show us our cabin when we arrived, or explain things. Thankfully, when I was struggling downhill with two children and four bags, the chef came to my help. I’m not expecting room service but a bit of thought goes a long way.

Have your say

Have you taken your family to Cae Mabon? Or do you have a favourite green escape in Wales, one where kids are welcome?

Post your tips below.

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Filed under Travel writing, Wales

Hit the North is evolving

Times change and Hit the North has to move with them.

That’s why this blog will be changing its look, feel and focus in the weeks to come as part of my new WordPress site.

Stay tuned for further details and thanks for listening.

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A local-food hotspot in Hawarden

It took me three goes but I’ve cracked it.

That perfect summer-night order, that is, at new-favourite gastropub, the Glynne Arms, before exploring perennial-fave North Walian village, Hawarden, Flintshire.

I’d been three times to the Glynne – the first hosted for a pre-opening press preview, twice since as a paying customer.

The first time we tried a bit of everything. All good, as you would expect from the people behind the Hawarden Estate Food Shop.

The second time I chose well, but my companion’s butternut squash risotto was deemed a bit too meagre for a rained-off Friday night.

But last time we got it right. The strategy? Simple.

Go for one of the sharing platters (the Welsh platter is my choice), then add a side portion of those delicious chunky chips, and throw in a few olives and dips from the starters. Ask them to bring it all at once and wash down with a pint of local ale.

It was perfect for a midsummer evening – not too heavy, great local produce, a range of flavours.

We really loved the homemade remoulade and the Welsh rarebit. But check out menu updates from the Glynne on Twitter.

Afterwards, walk it off around the village. From the front door of the pub, there’s a circuit through the grounds of Gladstone’s Library before heading through the wooden doors into the grounds of the Gladstone estate.

It was a delicious evening of soul-cleansing in a week of chaos. We’ll be regulars, I’m sure.

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Family holidays in Wales

So here’s the dilemma. I’m trying to choose a family-holiday escape suitable for my two girls aged two and six.

I’m looking for something with a back-to-basics feel and a close-to-home destination. I don’t want Disney. I want to bring the girls closer to nature, dip out of the daily grind and spend undivided time with them to build cherished childhood memories.

Tricky decisions

The destination bit is the easy bit. Wales, obviously, for its good value for money, simplicity, the friendly people and the natural beauty.

But what to do and where to stay? Now that’s the problem. I’m looking at the Family Holidays section of the Visit Wales web site but I’m confused.

There’s too much going on but not enough sense of insider knowledge. I want a shopping list for groceries but, for a once-a-summer family break, I want to feel an expert is sharing their personal insider knowledge with me.

I also want to know what other families are doing and for them to share their top tips with the forum.

And, on a practical level, I want to navigate my way around the site easily, accessing material from a central page, not having to follow an endless stream of links around labyrinthine sub-directories.

A new look

So how to improve it? Personally, I would make the following suggestions:

  1. Make it more personal. A weekly blog to be written by an expert voice, highlighting a great thing to do that week.
  2. Give it a face. I want to know who the expert is and why they’re qualified to advise me on where to take my children.
  3. Human interaction. Stop using pictures of people with their backs to the camera. If you’re on holiday in Wales, wouldn’t you be smiling?
  4. Work with the medium, not against it. No more chunky text but a clearer writing style better suited to reading on mobile and tablet formats.
  5. More multimedia. Use of image galleries, short video clips and audioboos to make it less static.
  6. Use social media. Push content through Twitter then harvest comments, tips and other user-generated content to compile lists of tips, or provide follow-up story ideas.
  7. Cross link. Bring new material to a wider audience by promoting it on Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and other platforms where Visit Wales already has a presence.
  8. Make it a good read. The tone needs to be inspiring and fun as well as informative. You need good, updated information but it needs to hold your attention too.
  9. Keep it fresh. It needs to be relevant to what’s happening now – half term, St David’s Day, Easter egg trails etc.
  10. Simplify navigation. One page for family holidays with a lead story and a menu of links, plus a column of social media. People read differently online, so lead the eye naturally.

Well, that’s what I’d do. Maybe you have other suggestions – if so, post them below.

Booking confirmed

And as for our summer hols? Well, in the end I chose a holiday based on a recommendation from a friend in Cardiff.

Maya, Olivia and I are going to spend a few nights at Cae Mabon near Llanberis, staying in one of the lodges. We’ll be joining in the bushcraft and listening to owner Eric Madden’s story time each evening.

The girls are excited. We check in August 13.

Sorted.

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Filed under Online writing, Travel writing, Wales

Behind the scenes: Holland cheese trail

Hit the North has a thing about cheese. In fact, the more potent, smelly and ripe the better.

I’ve been trying for ages to get an idea off the ground about Dutch cheese. Not the plastic-tasting Edam from my local supermarket but real, artisan Dutch cheese, the likes of which would give the French a run for their roquefort.

This week, I finally made it, following an unofficial cheese trail from Gouda to Friesland with the help of guide Kees Kaldenbach.

I was trying to get an angle on the way cheese making keeps the rural traditions of Holland alive – something we often miss amongst the cliched images of clogs and windmills.

It’s about trying to find a new way to look at a familiar destination, something I hope makes some of my stories stand apart.

My time in North Holland this week also led to think about how Holland is not seen as a food destination. Yet surely there are some interesting chefs and restaurateurs out there?

Maybe, like the cheese makers, people keeping alive the village recipes and farming favourites? I’d love to know if anyone has any suggestions or links.

My story will run in the Daily Express in a few weeks time. Meanwhile, here are some images from the trip.

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Behind the scenes: on assignment in the Alentejo

Hit the North has been out country. The Alentejo region of Portugal, since you ask, on assignment for Wanderlust magazine.

The feature, combining wildlife spotting in the Vale do Guadiana Natural Park and hiking the Rota Vicentina, will be out probably in the autumn.

It wasn’t the smoothest assignment at times but I think I found a good angle in the end. Let’s just say that, after much searching, I found the quintessential example of rural village life.

Look out for the full story but, by way of a preview, here are some images from the trip.

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Behind the scenes: public art in Ghent

The third and probably final in a series of trips to Ghent, Flanders, took a public art angle with TRACK.

It was an odd story to cover: somewhat chaotic, at times baffling, often frustrating. Not easy in a short timeframe.

Still, I did come away with copy – thanks mainly to a smiling Italian artist and a book about Flemish sociology.

Here are some moments from the trip in images; check my Twitter feed for links to published stories.

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